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The Community Newspaper: A Dying Institution

June 12, 2013

I love this era of digital publishing and the Internet as much as anyone. Maybe moreso: after all, I make my living from it and am able to conduct business with clients and authors worldwide because of its reach. Without the Internet, I cannot even imagine how the past 20 years of my editing, writing and promotional career would have transpired.

UnknownThat said, I mourn for the ongoing demise of the medium in which I started, an American publishing institution as old as this country: the daily print newspaper.

The other day, I read an article in the weekly Coast News (now North San Diego County’s best news source) that the San Diego Union-Tribune had decided to downsize yet again, laying off eight staff members, including its Oceanside beat reporter. From now on (or until the next downsize), one person will cover Oceanside and Vista for the U-T – just as one person is covering both Carlsbad and San Marcos.

TO READ THE WORD JOURNEYS BLOG, ALSO BY ROBERT YEHLING

If you’re from San Diego County, you know how ridiculous this is. Not only are Oceanside and Vista entirely different cities with different histories, politics, cultures and issues, but their combined population is nearly 300,000. The same holds true for Carlsbad and San Marcos. I grew up in Carlsbad, and believe me, no two cities could be more different. Yet, in the U-T’s unwise eyes, there’s not too much news for one reporter to handle.

Wake me up when this is over.

This downsizing is the latest dismantling of a legacy to which I once belonged. I first started writing professionally for The Blade-TribuneUnknown-4 in 1976. At the time, The Blade-Tribune (later The Blade-Citizen, then The North County Times) was the most hard-nosed newspaper in the county, from its city and news departments to the sports desk. We had a full flight of reporters who worked every corner of North San Diego County – one or two per city, sometimes more. We had great editors committed to daily excellence in Bill Missett and Steve Scholfield. We stopped at nothing to get the news, and we were known as the paper to which you did not want to lie or provide inaccurate information. We would dig out the truth, get it verified by a couple of sources, and print it. We were tough, fair, and good. That determination was the subject of a 1984 San Diego Reader feature on The Blade-Tribune and the Missett brothers, editor Bill and publisher Tom.

Looking back, I cannot imagine a better learning experience for my first seven years as a journalist and writer.

We weren’t alone. In 1976, there were a dozen daily newspapers in San Diego County alone. The 800-pound gorilla to the north, the Los Angeles Times, was trying to gain a foothold as well. The San Diego Union and Evening Tribune were the morning and evening San Diego papers, long before they merged.

Long-time Blade-Tribune editor Bill Missett, now retired and the author of the Awakening The Soul trilogy

Long-time Blade-Tribune editor Bill Missett, now retired and the author of the Awakening The Soul trilogy

The North County Times didn’t yet exist; it would later combine The Blade-Tribune and Times Advocate. Reporters were everywhere, covering stories, trying to “scoop” each other, becoming friends, doing their jobs with great pride. These were the last years before USA Today, CNN, MTV, ESPN and the Internet came along to permanently change the playing field by introducing the 24/7 news cycle.

Fast forward thirty five years: today, there is one daily newspaper in San Diego County. One. That paper, the Union-Tribune, bought out and absorbed The North County Times nine months ago. They said they would keep on much of the N-C Times staff, but that’s a hollow promise. Anyone who knows the dynamics of mergers & acquisitions knows that.

When The North County Times had to sell due to declining advertising and subscription revenue (because of online newspapers and magazines), North San Diego County lost its regular news source. Now, with my friend Ken Leighton’s sad story in the Coast News, the individual cities are now losing their only links to the reading public, the city beat reporters. This will be the first time since 1890 that Oceanside does not have a dedicated beat reporter for a daily newspaper. That’s a tragedy, in any number of ways.

Blade-Tribune and North County Times retired Sports Editor Steve Scholfield

Blade-Tribune and North County Times retired Sports Editor Steve Scholfield

If preserving newspapers is my goal, then I admit to being part of the problem: I read most of my news online. However, for the 20 years I’ve been online, I have religiously sought out the local paper to flip through the pages and get a beat on the community. In Tampa, it was the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times. In Northern California, the Nevada City Advocate. In Kentucky, the Union County Advocate and Crittenden Press. To me, online versions of local papers don’t cut it. They’re incomplete. So I don’t bother with them. Call it an old newspaper reporter’s sentiment: nothing matches the hard legwork, tight writing and tough editing that produces stories with information the public has a right to know.

Then I look at current barnburning issues like: the NSA’s ultra secrecy in helping themselves to our phone and Internet search records; the Justice Department’s brazen raids of Associated Press and Fox News information, protected under the First Amendment of a Constitution now under siege; the plagiarism epidemic that rages in an online publishing world; a world of young writers (not all, but many), that lifts “research” entirely off Google searches and has forgotten so many ground rules; the choking off of proper war coverage by the Pentagon; the buyouts of independent media entities by large multinational conglomerates (News Corp, GE, etc.); and the 24/7 news cycles that enflame the tabloid-gossip mentality that passes for  journalism today.

Unknown-1I see one point in common between all of these situations: the lack of print newspapers. If we had a nation of fully staffed, economically stable newspapers, with reporters working their beats the hard-boiled way, the way I was taught, then these situations would not have been able to fester for long, let alone change the face of our society. Richard Nixon and his henchmen found that out. My old colleagues at the Blade-Tribune would have excoriated the purveyors of all of these situations, and never relented. The powers that be have always respected print more than online.

Sadly, though, print newspapers are headed toward extinction.  The loss of eight more Union-Tribune reporters drives that home a little deeper.

Hopefully, we can rediscover the tenets that the print press used to protect our liberties and freedoms, and put them to work moving forward.

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